Author Archives: Sam Hadfield

Lost in Transportation: William Prudence and Robert Armstrong

The Digital Panopticon is a phenomenal tool but its success is ultimately dependent on the quality of past record-keeping. The eighteenth and nineteenth century data on which the project is based is outstanding in its detail and range, but it does contain some holes. Occasionally, individual convicts can fall through these. Here are a couple of examples of convicts who, in different ways, became ‘lost in transportation’.

William Prudence

On 7th July 1784 William Prudence was tried at the Old Bailey for:

burglariously and feloniously breaking and entering the dwelling house of William Penn…

Prudence was found guilty of stealing several items of clothing, four brass candlesticks and a looking glass, but was not convicted of the break-in itself. This was because the crime took place in darkness and the witnesses could not be certain of the burglar’s identity. In spite of these doubts, Prudence was sentenced to seven years transportation. After his trial Prudence was held for a spell in Newgate Prison (TNA HO77 17/07/1784) but there is no record of him arriving in Australia.

In fact, he never left Britain. William Prudence went on to live as a weaver and had several other run-ins with the law. In 1793 he spent 6 months in Newgate Prison and was publicly whipped for stealing four loaves of bread. A year later, he stole 56lbs of salted butter – as punishment, he spent another 14 days in Newgate and was again whipped in public.

This means that Prudence must have been granted a reprieve in 1784. Unfortunately, no record of this survives and we can only speculate about what happened. For instance, Prudence could have filed a petition for mercy and had it upheld; he could have been pardoned in light of new evidence; or he may have had a medical condition which prevented him travelling. We simply don’t know. The absence of this type of record is not uncommon – the date of Prudence’s trial is particularly early and records from this time often do not survive – however, it is a deeply frustrating reminder that there are missing links within the data.

On 22nd June 1796 Prudence was once more sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing several lengths of muslin cloth. Again he not serve this sentence; he died a natural death at Newgate Prison before he could be transported. William Prudence never set foot in Australia; sadly, despite all of the technology at our disposal, we will never know the exact reason why.

Robert Armstrong

After previously being convicted for grand larceny in 1792, Robert Armstrong was sentenced to death for his role in a burglary in 1794. However, on the recommendation of a Judge, his sentence was respited (HO47/19/16). Instead of facing the hangman, Armstrong was transported to the West Indies to serve as a soldier with the Sixtieth Regiment.

Robert Armstrong was quite literally lost in transportation. In 1797 he reappeared at the Old Bailey accused of returning from transportation before the end of his sentence. The defence he gave to the court was truly extraordinary:

In 1795, I was pardoned upon condition of serving his Majesty King George, in the sixtieth regiment of foot, to go in the capacity of a soldier; I embarked the 14th of April, 1795; I had the misfortune to be taken by the French, and carried into Guadaloupe; they wanted to force me to serve against my country, and rather than be a traitor to my country I was determined to get my liberty, or die; here are two shots in my neck that I got as I was making my escape.

Having been captured by the French and then escaping back to London, Armstrong faced one last hurdle – proving his story. His trial was not going favourably until a record kept by the Sixtieth Regiment themselves was produced. This proved that he had been sent to the West Indies and that his account was truthful. The court was clearly unaware of the existence of this document. A reward was offered for Armstrong’s arrest – he was captured and brought to court by Joseph Nash who was clearly hoping to receive some financial reward. Armstrong was fortunate that a military record existed to prove his story; otherwise he would likely have faced the death penalty.

Robert Armstrong nearly slipped through the net because there was no court record of his transportation. This story is another example of how careless record-keeping could make life difficult for convicts and can still frustrate modern researchers.

Stealing one’s Heart: The story of Samuel Haslam and Elizabeth Ann Fernley

Samuel Haslam's First two Indictments

The beginning of a long day in court for Samuel Haslam and Elizabeth Ann Fernley (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/images.jsp?doc=184202280123).

On 12th August 1839 Samuel Haslam pleaded guilty to embezzlement. For this offence the eighteen year old was sentenced to four months in prison. These are the only details we have of the trial; evidently, the case was open-and-shut and the reporter wasted no time documenting superfluous information.

The reporter was much busier, however, on 28th February 1842 – on this date Samuel Haslam faced no fewer than three separate trials. In the first of these, he again pleaded guilty to embezzlement. His victim was his master John Ord, from whom he stole 27 pounds.

Following this verdict Haslam remained in the dock. He was charged with conducting a burglary that took place on 4th December 1841. The crime was carefully conceived and a surprising amount of goods were taken from the home of Joseph Rawlings – this included:

1 hat; 1 pair of boots; 2 rings; 2 candlesticks; 2 cups; 2 saucers; 4 jars; 20 thimbles; 4 pencil-cases; 1 brooch; 1 cloak; 2 coats; 1 waistcoat; 1 miniature-case; 1 table-cloth; and 19 spoons’ .

Some of the stolen goods were recovered in a later police search of his house. As a result, Haslam was found guilty. However, he was not the sole defendant in this case – alongside him at the stand were several members of the Fernley family, including his partner Elizabeth Ann Fernley. Twenty-three year old Elizabeth Fernley and Haslam rented the Bethnal Green house where the goods were discovered together ‘as man and wife’.

Fernley was not charged with the burglary itself. Instead, she faced the lesser charge of receiving stolen goods. Four pawnbrokers testified against her; each claimed that she had pawned a portion of the stolen goods in their shops under the name ‘Bennet’. This alias was regularly used by the couple – it was the name under which they rented their house and it was used by Haslam when confronted by a police officer. The testimonies of the pawnbrokers convinced the court that Fernley was intimately involved and she too was found guilty. Incidentally, all the other defendants in the case were not convicted.

Before Fernley and Haslam were sentenced they were indicted for a final time. The similarities between this case and the previous one are striking. Haslam was convicted of burglary and taking a large number of household possessions, while, after the testimony of a pawnbroker, Fernley was found guilty of pawning the stolen goods. Once again she was using the name ‘Bennet’. The same Fernley family members were also indicted but again were found not guilty. Fernley received a sentence of 14 years transportation for her two offences; Haslam was to be transported for life for his role in these burglaries and his two previous charges of embezzlement.

Samuel Haslam and Elizabeth Ann Fernley worked together to carry out these burglaries. They were no Bonnie and Clyde, although they do seem to have been very much in love. Before the final verdict was delivered Haslam made an emotive defence of the couple’s actions:

It was intimated in the last case, that I and Elizabeth Fernley lived together as man and wife, it is false; I had been acquainted with her for some months, and the property brought into the cottage, I brought there; she placed the greatest confidence in me, and thought I came by it honestly; we were short of money at times, and I told her to pawn the things; I took the cottage myself, with the idea of our being married, but the rooms being small, and not liking it, we said we would wait some time, and take another…

Haslam’s statement was meant to encourage the court to exercise leniency. In particular, it emphasizes Fernley’s innocence – he stresses that she was unaware that the goods were stolen and that she pawned them at his instigation. The burglaries, according to Haslam, were motivated because the couple did not have the funds to marry or afford a better house. In short, he suggests that his crimes were motivated by love.

There is evidence that Elizabeth Fernley also protested the verdict. She filed a petition to the court pleading for mercy. This was an appeal which tried to persuade the court to reduce the length of her sentence or overturn it completely – for more information about petitions see the stories of Elizabeth Morley and Robert Jones. Although a record of Fernley’s petition being filed survives (and if you have a subscription to Find My Past you can view it here), sadly the petition itself no longer exists. It seems likely that this petition too would have pulled on the court’s heartstrings and focused on the romantic motives behind the crimes.

Both convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania); Fernley arrived in September 1842 and Haslam two months later in November. The course of their relationship in Australia is difficult to follow. If the couple married as convicts both would have needed the permission of the local authorities. However, in a search of the convict marriage permissions database, which covers records from 1829-1857, no results were found for either Samuel Haslam or Elizabeth Ann Fernley. Neither Fernley’s nor Haslam’s conduct records suggest that there were any informal liaisons between the pair.

While these crimes may have been committed for love, it appears that this passion fizzled out once both convicts reached Van Diemen’s Land. In all likelihood external circumstances intervened; the couple may even have been separated for the rest of their lives. Here the British penal system extinguished a young couple’s love. In every sense then, this is a case of stealing one’s heart.

James Littleton and the Problems of Automatic Record Linkage

James Littleton's Conduct Record from 1842 (TAS CON33-1-17)

James Littleton’s Conduct Record from 1842 (TAS CON33-1-17)

In 1832, James Littleton was indicted for theft. This, according to a series of records automatically matched by the Digital Panopticon, marked the beginning of his exceptional story. Littleton was accused of stealing 10lbs of beef, 3lbs of mutton and five eggs from a wine-merchant named Thomas Wood. He was caught red-handed as Police Constable Cornelius Wintle amusingly explains:

I was on duty in Holborn, on the morning of the 27th of September, and heard a gentleman call out “Police!” opposite King-street – I crossed, and stopped the prisoner; some eggs dropped out of his hat; I took him to the area of Mr. Wood’s house, and the beef and mutton were in the area – Mr. Wood was looking out of the window.

Littleton offered no defence and was found guilty. The sentence passed down was lenient; he was imprisoned for one month. As he was aged just 16 and this was his first conviction, this judgement was a wrap on the knuckles to deter any future criminal activity.

Less than two months later Littleton was back at the Old Bailey. On 29th November 1832 he was charged with the theft of 37 cigars from a Tobacconist in Holborn. Again, he was caught in possession of the stolen goods by a Police Officer. This time, however, the court did not give him another chance; now aged 17, Littleton was sentenced to seven years transportation.

The next trace of James Littleton is a record of his transportation. On 13th December 1832, Littleton was one of 216 convicts transported aboard the Lotus to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). After sailing for 154 days and stopping at Rio de Janeiro, James Littleton arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 16th May 1833.

The next linked record, placed Littleton back at the Old Bailey in November 1840 charged with the murder of Mary Nicholls. He was reported as being aged 27, a figure which, allowing for some error, corresponds to his previous records. The crime also took place close to Holborn, the scene of his previous offences. Found guilty of this brutal killing, Littleton was then sent back to Van Diemen’s Land to serve a life term.

Before he was shipped, Littleton was detained aboard the Prison Hulk ship Leviathan moored at Portsmouth (TNA H09 09/12/1840). These floating prisons were used largely because the English prison system was grossly overcrowded and there simply was not enough space to house convicts on land.[1] Mentioned as an aside, it seems that Littleton escaped from the Leviathan on the 27th January 1841. There is little record of this daring escape but evidently Littleton was on the run for a considerable period; he was not transported to Van Diemen’s Land until September 1841. Following his arrival in February 1842, Littleton’s conduct record is full of incident. He was found guilty of attempted murder and was hanged at Hobart on 31st December 1842.[2]

This is the truly extraordinary story of James Littleton according to the records linked automatically by the Digital Panopticon. It is a fascinating account of a how a youth involved in petty crime transformed, on his return from Australia, into a hardened criminal. With an escape from prison and a sorry end at the hangman’s noose, James Littleton’s story has all the hallmarks of a box office epic. However, on closer inspection, all is not as it seems.

James Littleton arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in May 1833, having received a sentence of seven years. The conduct record for his first stint in Van Diemen’s Land, whilst very difficult to read, indicates that he was still there on 12th May 1839. In theory he could have completed this term and made the four or five month voyage to Britain in time to commit murder on 18th October 1840, though this seems unlikely. The transcript of his murder trial makes clear that:

the prisoner [James Littleton] and the deceased [Mary Nicholls] lived together, and slept in the same bed’.

This relationship suggests that Littleton had spent a significant period of time in London before he murdered Nicholls in October 1840. This narrows the window for Littleton to travel back to Britain and commit the offence even further. The logistics of such a journey work, but only just.

The descriptions of James Littleton upon his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land in 1833 and 1841 differ markedly. In 1833, he was reported as being 5ft 1in tall, with light brown hair and dark grey eyes. He also had a tattoo in the shape of an anchor on his arm. By 1840 however, he had grown 6½ inches and had black hair, while the tattoo on his arm had vanished. In 1833 Littleton’s occupation was listed as a ‘baker’, yet by 1840 he was classed simply as a ‘laborer’.

James Littleton’s trial in November 1840 was high profile and was covered by a number of newspapers. This report is taken from The Standard (Saturday 24/10/1840; Issue 5101):

James Littleton, alias Shamus, a ruffianly-looking fellow, aged about 25 years, who had been repeatedly brought to this court and convicted for violent assaults upon the police… On the prisoner having been placed at the bar, Mr Combe [the Judge] recognised him as one whom he had seen before on charges at this court. Policeman 49, Q division, stated that the prisoner [James Littleton] had frequently been charged at this and other courts for violent assaults, and he had been once cast for death and left for execution. Seven years ago he had been convicted of a rape. The prisoner denied this, and said he had been acquitted of the charge.’

James Littleton did not deny being accused of rape; in fact, he was keen to show how he had been acquitted at a trial. Yet how can this trial have taken place seven years earlier (1833) in London if, as the record linking process suggests, James Littleton was actually on the other side of the world?

This evidence leaves only one possible conclusion; there were two James Littleton’s born within a couple of years and living within a couple of miles of each other. One was a tobacco thief from Holborn – the other a dangerous thug with a string of violent convictions.

A subsequent search for the second James Littleton’s prior convictions mentioned in The Standard, revealed evidence of a trial at the Old Bailey in September 1839. A ‘James Lyttleton’ was convicted of stealing a basket and ‘three pecks of French beans’ in August of that year and was sentenced to six months in prison. The irregular spelling of ‘Lyttleton’ meant that this information did not appear in the records compiled by the computer. It proves that we are in fact looking at the exploits of two people. Our first James Littleton was still in Van Diemen’s Land in May 1839, so cannot be the same person who committed this offence in London in August. There are indications that the second James Littleton may have faced trial in 1838, which would provide categorical proof that there were two people; however the record of this trial is proving difficult to locate.

This search also revealed earlier records of the first James Littleton’s criminal career. Aged just 13, in April 1829, he was accused of pick-pocketing. Despite the loss of a considerable sum of money, the prosecutor failed to turn up to the Old Bailey and Littleton was acquitted. His next appearance in court was in October 1830. This time Littleton appeared as a witness in the trial of two 14 year old youths charged with the theft of snuff boxes and pipes. Although, the two defendants were put to death for this crime, Littleton, despite playing a part in the robbery, faced no charges. These records were not matched because they contain little information about Littleton himself – for instance, they lack specific details regarding his age or appearance. However, they seem to fit with the petty nature of his subsequent crimes.

This complex case illustrates some of the drawbacks of linking records together in this way. By creating matches based on names and ages, two (or maybe more) individuals can be confused for one. Also, this method is ultimately reliant on the searcher themselves. A program can only search what a user inputs. If, in my initial search for James Littleton, I had typed ‘L*ttleton’ to cover other possible spellings, this story would have become a lot clearer a lot sooner.

Such algorithms are extremely powerful tools to identify potential links between individual records and are vital to constructing convict lives, however the links created cannot always be completely relied upon.

Below are alternative timelines for each James Littleton:

James Littleton (1)

1815/6: Born

09/04/1829 (aged 13): Found not guilty of pocket-picking

28/10/1830 (aged 14): Appears as a witness in a trial of two 14 year olds who stole snuff boxes and pipes – involved but not convicted

18/10/1832 (aged 16): Found guilty of stealing food – sentenced to one month in prison

29/11/1832 (aged 17): Found guilty of stealing cigars – transported for 7 years

20/12/1832: Sailed to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Lotus

16/05/1833 (aged 18): Arrives in Van Diemen’s Land

06/06/1833: Given 12 lashes on the back for being ‘absent without leave’ and for showing insolence to a ‘Mr Pearson’

16/07/1838: Disobeyed orders and showed highly improper conduct for allowing a servant to be drinking in a hut with two female prisoners until one of them was drunk. Sent to a Road Party on probation 21st July 1838

From this point on his story is unclear. His conduct record is dated 12/05/1839 which suggests he was still in Van Diemen’s Land at this point but it gives little clue as to his life after the end of his sentence.

James Littleton (2)

1813: Born

1813-1839: Prior convictions – assaults on Police Officers and/or rape – also a possible trial in 1838

16/09/1839: Found guilty of stealing French beans – sentenced to six months in prison

23/11/1840 (aged 27): Tried at Old Bailey – found guilty of murder – transported to Van Diemen’s Land for life

09/12/1840: Held prisoner on the Prison Hulk Leviathan in Portsmouth

27/01/1841: Escaped from prison

28/09/1841: Transported to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Tortoise

19/02/1842: Arrives at Van Diemen’s Land

31/12/1842: Executed at Hobart

 

[1] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (Sydney, 1986), pp. 41-2.

[2] For a brief account of this hanging see Steve Harris, Solomon’s Noose: The True Story of Her Majesty’s Hangman of Hobart (Melbourne, 2015), Ch. 10.